I'd heard about the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament for years. Friends who had played in it had sounded like carnival hawkers outside a 7-foot Amazon woman's tent: "Big Chloe! Big Chloe! She walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile. Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen. You've got to see her to believe her!" Someday, I'd resolved, I would do so.
Still, I was surprised to hear the Minnesota tournament brought up in this setting: February 1980, moments after the U.S. Olympic hockey team had scored with 27 seconds remaining to tie Sweden 2-2 at Lake Placid. The squad had just filed into the locker room, which was rapidly turning into a madhouse. Mike Ramsey, one of the American defense-men and now a member of the Buffalo Sabres, was breathing deeply, sweating, his eyes alive with the thrill of where he was and what his team had just accomplished. "That's the most nervous I've been before a game since the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament," said Ramsey.
Recently, Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach at Lake Placid, who's now with the New York Rangers, did Ramsey one better. "Of all the thrills I've had in hockey—playing and coaching in the Olympics, winning NCAA titles, coaching the Rangers—I can honestly say the biggest was winning the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament," said Brooks. "No question about it. It's because you do that with kids you've come up through the ranks with. You lived for the day you had a chance to try out for the high school team, hoping you'd get the sweater number of some guy you admired. Then you lived for the day you made the tournament, so you could win it and share that with your mates. It sounds like bull, but that win in high school was a bigger thrill than the gold medal."
It did sound like bull, but in the back of my mind I could hear a tinny, insistent voice barking, "Big Chloe! Big Chloe! You've got to see her to believe her!"
Last year the tournament was held, as usual, in St. Paul. The dates were Thursday, March 11 through Saturday the 13th. (This year's tournament will be played next week.) As I had been warned, all the hotels in the St. Paul area had been booked for months, so I stayed 25 minutes away, in Bloomington, across the street from the Met Center, where the Minnesota North Stars play. Wednesday night the New York Islanders happened to be in town—a replay of the 1981 Stanley Cup finals—so I took in the game. It was a dandy—for the regular season—ending in a 4-4 tie.
After that I wasn't enjoying the prospect of three straight days of schoolboy hockey. But on Thursday I rose early, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on the way to the St. Paul Civic Center. "Just look for the school buses," the first gas station attendant told me. I looked.
"Just follow that Winnebago," said the next attendant, pointing at a brown camper sporting a bumper sticker that read: IRON RANGERS: WE'RE NOT TOO SMART, BUT WE LIFT HEAVY THINGS. The Iron Range, I later learned, is an area in northern Minnesota rich in ore and hockey talent. Rangers, as the people who live there are called, are easily distinguished from Twin City folk. Taciturn, thrifty, outdoorsy, hard-drinking, Rangers are regarded by their St. Paul hosts as one might look upon an eccentric uncle who visits once a year: You're exhausted by the time he leaves, but for the next 51 weeks you tell tales of his stay.
Eventually, I spotted a sea of yellow buses parked bumper to bumper. Clusters of people were milling about, and a stray trumpeter in uniform ran by. The weather was relatively mild, in the 30s; it was bright, and not much snow was left on the ground. Youngsters were selling programs, a band was getting itself organized and a few hopeful-looking sorts were holding up signs asking for tickets. After a long, long nap, the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament was stretching its muscles, catlike, in the March sunshine.
The Civic Center seats 15,706. with standing room for several thousand more fans. The largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in Minnesota—19,145—attended the tournament's opening session in 1979. Pretty good for a Thursday afternoon. I recalled my own illustrious high school career. At the biggest game of the year—Hotchkiss vs. Choate—you could tell how big the crowd was simply by counting the noses peering over the boards. This would be a different kettle offish. At 11 o'clock the line for standing-room tickets was already 100 yards long and three or four persons wide. Someone in that queue may not have been between the ages of 13 and 17, but I failed to locate him or her. Thursday apparently was a light day in Minnesota schools.
"This tournament is the premier high school sporting event in the country," Larry Larson, the director of information and publications for the Minnesota State High School League, told me as I picked up my press credentials. "The Indiana basketball and Texas football people will debate that, I imagine, but I think I'm right. Part of the secret is having only one division—all 150 or so of the state's hockey-playing schools are in it—so you get the real David and Goliath games, the small schools that become Cinderella stories. And the tournament is the harbinger of spring for our state. We're coming out of winter."
Cinderella, David and Goliath—all we needed now was a cry for Big Chloe. Larson described the ticket situation, and it was grim. Unless you were affiliated with one of the eight schools that had made it through the sectionals to the tournament, you could pretty well forget about getting a seat. Even scalpers were scarce. Those who couldn't attend could either watch the tournament on television—last year WCCO-TV in Minneapolis paid $450,000 to carry the games in 1983-85—or listen to it on one of 19 radio stations across the state.
The first game, between Edina and Rochester Mayo, began at 12:35. The top row of the stands had been converted into an auxiliary press box, and I sat there, muscling a pleasant young man named Terry Albert out of my seat. He plopped himself onto the steps in the aisle, beside his father, Ernie. I read the program. Edina was the pretournament favorite, and I recalled that Bill Nyrop, the former Montreal Canadien defense-man, had played for the 1969 Edina state championship team. The Alberts told me whom to keep an eye on in the game. Ernie works at 3M in St. Paul, and he had taken a vacation day to be here. He and Terry had paid a scalper $5 apiece for $3 standing room, which they thought was a fair price. I asked Ernie whether he had played hockey.
"Sure," he said. "I grew up in the southwest part of the state, Okabena. There was a river outside of town the kids used to play on. We had clamp-on skates back then, or if you didn't have clamps you played goal." I could picture it: Some kid in galoshes, his feet freezing, trying to stop the puck and keep his balance, and failing at both. "We'd take stones off the road to make goals," Ernie continued. "Man, they hurt if you fell on them." He winced. "We didn't have real sticks, you know. We'd cut off a curved tree limb to use as a stick. And the puck would be the piece of an old tire."
We paused to watch the action. Having seen two of the best teams in the NHL the night before, I was prepared for a shambles. I didn't get one. The kids were very fast, the passing occasionally errant but never sloppy, the pace relentless. The two bands lent an urgency to the atmosphere that had been missing from the North Star-Islander game. After all, this game meant something—even to nonpartisan observers like Ernie, who in some small way was reliving his afternoons on the river in Okabena. "I've been coming to this tournament for 10 years," he said. "I think you appreciate it more if you've played the game." Yes, that was probably right. Edina eventually beat Mayo 7-4. Both teams had looked awfully good.
The second game featured the Bloomington Thomas Jefferson Jaguars, who were the defending champions, and the Green Wave of East Grand Forks. I decided to pull for East Grand Forks. An 0-4 record in two previous tournament appearances made the Green Wave an irresistible choice for someone whose college team had gone 1-22 a dozen years ago. I recalled teammates who'd played in this tournament, how they'd spoken of it, and how some had quit our college program in disgust. What a letdown we must have been after this.
East Grand Forks, which is on the North Dakota border, was the northernmost town represented in St. Paul. In its early years, the tournament had been dominated by northern schools, which won 20 of the first 24 titles. Little towns like Eveleth, Roseau and International Falls became familiar names to American hockey enthusiasts and produced many of the country's finest players. Southern teams, however, have won the tournament nine of the last 14 years. The north-south rivalries are keen.
The Jefferson-East Grand Forks game was even crisper than the opener. It was difficult to believe that these were high school players. In the third period the score was 3-3, the minutes were ticking down and the tension was building. Then an amazing thing happened. Upon a stop in play, an entire section of green-clad students rose—this was the real Green Wave—and chanted in unison. "We have spirit! Yes we do! We have spirit! How 'bout you?" On the you the East Grand Forks contingent pointed accusingly across the rink at the Jefferson fans and then sat down.
The Green Wave's challenge was swiftly met. A powder-blue throng rose—hundreds, no, thousands, strong—and screamed, "We have spirit! Yes we do! We have spirit! How 'bout you?" Index fingers were directed back toward the East Grand Forks contingent, and the Jefferson section sat down.
I had never seen anything quite like this. Our favorite high school cheer had been "Stomp 'em on the head." This was so wholesome, so refreshing, so Mary Tyler Moore-ish. I felt as if the whole lot of them should have been flown to the nearest mountaintop by some soft-drink company to film a commercial.
Back and forth the two schools went: up, down, up, down; green, blue, green, blue. I wondered how it would end, and presently I learned. When it came their turn, the Jefferson supporters began to scream, "We have more! We have more! We have more!" Unfazed, the Green Wave rose and countered with the same cheer. The entire place resounded. (All weekend long, the best moments in the Civic Center came when scores were tied.) Then suddenly, as each section was challenging the other's spirit, Jefferson scored its fourth goal. Now the mood shifted. The cheerleaders dressed in powder blue assumed a giddy, triumphant air, while those in green began to tug on each other's sweaters, chew fingernails and sneak looks at the clock. Several were near tears. On the ice, play became frenetic, but the game ended 4-3.
Two more games were played that night. Hibbing, the Iron Range representative, shut out Henry Sibley of Mendota Heights 3-0 and Mariner of White Bear Lake routed Cloquet 7-2. More than 18,000 people attended the evening session, bringing the day's gate to 36,000. Excluding scouts and coaches, few spectators sat through both sessions. Hockey games are like the movies—a double feature is plenty for most enthusiasts. Four in one day is too much for me.
I watched the third period of the Mariner-Cloquet game in my hotel room. Mariner had huge defensemen, and Coquet was in the process of getting stomped. That was too bad. What little emotional involvement I could still muster I'd thrown Cloquet's way. It was making its first trip to the state tournament, and it had terrific uniforms. The team's nickname is the Lumberjacks, and on the front of the players' sweaters was an emblem of a bearded lumberjack wearing a wool cap. Unfortunately, Cloquet was missing its star player, Cory Millen, who had broken his ankle in the sectional playoffs. He had finished the season with 44 goals in 15 games. During the Mariner game, Millen was behind the bench, leaning on his crutches and lending moral support, but that couldn't make up for his missing scoring touch.
On Friday afternoon, I went to the Radisson Hotel to see Willard Ikola, Edina's coach for the past quarter-century. Ikola's assistant, Bart Larson, was stationed outside Ikola's room on the 14th floor—the Edina floor—to make certain that merrymakers confined their frolicking to other parts of the hotel, so the Edina players could get their rest before that night's game. Ikola had been a goalie for Eveleth in the late '40s, when the school won five of the first seven state titles. In four appearances at the state tournament, Ikola had five shutouts—a record that still stands—and by the time he graduated, Eveleth had won 50 games in a row. Ikola is a short, circumspect man who has worn the same checkered yellow hat to every state tournament since 1968. It was no great trial for him to speak of the old days.
"My dad, like most of the people in Eveleth, worked in the iron mines," he said. "Things were tough. We didn't have a lot of money. It was a big thing to come down to the tournament. The whole town came. It was the only time most of them ever slept in a hotel. The first time I ordered from a menu was down here. We played in the old St. Paul Auditorium, which held 7,756 people. Eveleth's entire population then was about 6,000. That was quite a thrill. Our team was responsible for there being a rule about how much the players could eat at training meals. We used to pass plates of food to our friends who had come down from Eveleth. We'd never seen so much food."
Thirty-six colleges purchase seats to the tournament, and a good showing by a player is a virtual guarantee of a scholarship offer. NHL scouts, who have found such stars as Steve Christoff, Neal and Aaron Broten, Mike Ramsey and Phil Housley at the tournament in recent years, also flock to the event. Last year the NHL drafted more players out of Minnesota high schools (27) than it did from the Quebec Major Junior League (17). But peddling talent to the pros isn't what this tournament is about—not remotely. "For the guys who make it into the finals tomorrow night," said Ikola, "it will be the biggest game they'll play until the Stanley Cup." Noise suddenly erupted from the hallway, and Larson could be heard ushering a beery crowd of students back onto the elevator. "It's their tournament," said Ikola. "It's something they'll never forget. Every time they watch this tournament as an adult they'll remember all the fun they had." He smiled. "Like I do."
The first game of Friday night's semifinals matched the two local teams, Edina and Jefferson, and the atmosphere was festive. A group of Jefferson students had painted their faces blue to match the outfits of their cheerleaders. "Let's get fired up!" implored the cheerleaders. Fifty of them were intermingled with the crowd—I never thought I would see so many blonde 16-year-old girls in my life—and spectators trying to get to their seats were taking a pretty good battering from the pompons.
"We are fired up! We are fired up!" was the response. That cheer was led by an entire section of guys wearing raincoats, dark glasses and Blues Brothers hats. No one could explain why they were dressed that way, not adequately, anyway. Something about the fourth branch of the secret service of the school government. At the end of regulation time the score was 2-2.
Ask anyone to name the most memorable game in tournament history and he'll mention one of two. The first is Thief River Falls against Minneapolis South in 1955. That one lasted 11 overtimes. Rudy Kogl, South's coach, is said to have taken a walk during two of the extra periods. Had to get away, clear his head. Following the ninth OT, the referees decided to start the second game of the night, between Roseau and St. Paul Johnson. Herb Brooks played for St. Paul Johnson. "We had to give those other teams a rest," says Brooks. "We played our first period, then they played their tenth overtime. Then we played our second period. I remember thinking we were going to finish our game before they finished theirs." It didn't happen that way. Between the second and third periods of the Roseau-Johnson game, South scored to win 3-2. Exhausted, South lost the next day to Brooks' team, which went on to win the championship.
The other game most often cited is the 1969 title game between Warroad and Edina. Warroad, a small town from up north, was led by a center named Henry Boucha, a Chippewa Indian whose professional career ended in 1976 as the result of an eye injury sustained in a stick-swinging incident with Dave Forbes of the Boston Bruins two years earlier. Hockey fans in the Twin Cities had heard about Boucha all season, but the tournament was their first opportunity to see him. He put on an electrifying show in Warroad's first two games. Then, in the final, Boucha was viciously checked by an Edina defenseman and injured. Most recall the play as being dirty, but no penalty was called. "About 15,000 people were ready to go over the boards and lynch the entire Edina team," one observer remembers. Edina already led 4-2, but Warroad, playing without Boucha, made a stirring comeback before Edina won 5-4 in overtime.
That, I supposed, was one reason for the ill feeling toward Edina. More damning is the fact that Edina is one of the Twin Cities' wealthiest suburbs. "No one likes rich kids who are good," said Bob Johnson, coach of the Calgary Flames, when asked about the tournament. Johnson, who guided Wisconsin to three NCAA titles, got his start in coaching at Warroad. As I waited for the overtime between Edina and Jefferson to start, I could find no one from outside Edina who was rooting for Edina. It's the Dallas Cowboys of Minnesota high school hockey. As one small boy explained to me, "They think they're so hot."
Nevertheless, Edina won, scoring at 7:03 of the first OT. It was the prettiest goal of the night, which is as it should be in a game of that importance. Afterward Ikola did a jig in the locker room, looking, for a split second, as merry as any coach I'd ever seen. "We're going to the big one!" he said, beaming.
One of Edina's co-captains, Bill Brauer, was sitting at his locker. There was no rush to undress after a game like that. "At first I was just happy to be in the tournament," he said. "But now we're trying to win it. It's your goal since you were a kid. I remember being down at the playground when I was eight or nine pretending to be Craig Norwich or someone like that. 'He comes down...he shoots...he scores!' You think of them as so great. And now we're here—like they were." A smile settled on his face. It was a pleasing thought.
In the other semifinal, White Bear would play Hibbing, the sentimental favorite. George Perpich, Hibbing's coach of 29 years, would retire after his team's last game. This was the fifth time Perpich had brought Hibbing to the final eight, and on every occasion one of his sons and a Micheletti boy had been on the team. This year Pat Micheletti was Hibbing's starting center, and Jeff Perpich was a starting defenseman. Each is the youngest in his family.
Hibbing's fans had been having a time of it. Several busloads of students had come the 190 miles to see their team's opening game. Immediately afterward—around nine Thursday night—they had piled back into the buses for the 4½-hour drive back to Hibbing. School was held as usual on Friday morning, and at 12:30 in the afternoon the buses filled again for the trek back to St. Paul. If Hibbing should win this one, its fans would make the round trip once more for the title game, bringing their total time on buses in three days to 27 hours. I have no fonder memories of bus rides than the average American, and I expressed my sympathies to one of the Hibbing students after hearing of this ordeal. "Are you kidding?" she said. "The bus rides are the best part." It wasn't the last time that weekend I would feel 87 years old.
Alas, the return trip to the Iron Range on Friday night would be the last one for Hibbing followers. Mariner shut down Perpich's attack with superb defense and advanced to the finals with a 4-1 victory. Following the game, I walked the six blocks back to the Radisson. The moon was three-quarters full and waning. The night was windy, and the temperature on the bank clock read 30°. A group of barelegged cheerleaders ran by me, their pompons still held high. They were shouting how they were going to crush Edina.
I sensed I was nearing the hotel when an orange, falling 20 stories, splattered on the street. There was vomit on the sidewalk. Inside, at midnight, the Radisson looked like Vegas Midwest. "We will, we will skate-skate," sang a group of cheerleaders, different from those who had passed me on the street. The lobby was jammed. The pool area was jammed. The bar was jammed. Need I tell you about the elevators? "Where's the party?" asked a student carrying a tapedeck as he tried to exit at the 14th floor. "Not here," the vigilant Larson replied, shoving him back into our ascending brewery. Someone had pushed all the buttons. Eventually I made my escape.
I had been invited to a hospitality suite. It was hot and crowded with fans, parents, coaches and scouts. Shortly after I arrived, a well-dressed lady passed out in the living room. She recovered. The talk in the suite was of an up-and-coming ninth-grader, of a younger Broten brother, of Phil Housley's chances of turning pro (which he did, signing right out of high school with the Buffalo Sabres, who drafted him in the first round). This was grass-roots hockey. Not many people here would walk out of a game early. "The Minnesota hockey fan does not sleep with his North Stars," said one of the scouts. "The North Stars have to succeed to get a following. The Minnesota hockey fan sleeps with his high school hockey."
On Saturday afternoon, while the consolation games were being played, I went to find Ron Drobnick, the goalie on the Eveleth team that won the first Minnesota state tournament in 1945. His name is still in the record books: LEAST STOPS-One Game—1—Ron Drobnick, Eveleth (1945). Eveleth won that game 16-0, and the save, says Drobnick, came on a shot from center ice. He had not, as I had been told, injured his ankle on the play.
Drobnick's room was packed. His wife, Margaret, was there, along with a former teammate, Milan Begich, who had witnessed the infamous one save, and a bunch of other people from Eveleth. A consolation game was on TV. Homemade Polish sausages were simmering in a steamer in the corner of the room. They lent a sweet, humid scent to the air. I was offered a sausage and homemade wine, 1981 vintage. It was pale gold, and I could nearly see through it. A lot of folks in Eveleth make their own wine. The grapes come from California.
Drobnick has missed only two state tournaments since playing in that first one. One year he was in the service. Then in 1981 he switched jobs, so he had to pass up another. "For me to get here is the big thing," he said. "I don't care who wins." He and Begich traded insults about the old days. "We even took a tour of the state capitol that first time," recalled Drobnick. "Milan says, 'Boy, they sure could put a lot of hay in here.' Then we went to a restaurant and found a tip someone had left in the tip bowl. We thought it was an ashtray. Milan looks at the bowl and says, 'There's money in there, holy cow.' And we took it."
"We played in front of 5,200 people in the finals," said Begich. "That was a big crowd for us."
"Milan, when we got on the bus it was a big crowd."
They talked about their old coach, Cliff Thompson. If a kid broke a stick and wasn't able to afford a new one, Thompson would buy him one and leave it in the snowbank outside the boy's house. "Poor?" said Drobnick. "Why we only had one puck per block, and when that road apple dried up, a lot of times we didn't have any pucks. You skated all day because there was nothing else to do. No TV. You had to get out of the house. Eveleth was a real melting pot—Swedes, dagos, bohunks. I don't care what you call me as long as you don't call me late for supper."
We laughed and drank the wine and ate the delicious sausage. As I bade good-by Drobnick nodded at Begich and said, "Why, during this tournament we even give up sex." They smiled at their wives, who smiled back. "We make our hotel reservations for next year when we leave."
The championship game that night between Edina and Mariner drew a crowd of 17,553, which brought the total attendance for the six sessions to 101,006. Edina dominated play and after two periods led 4-0, despite having two goals disallowed. "I don't like 'em personally," said an old coach before the start of the third period. "I've battled Edina all these years, and nobody hates 'em worse than I do. But they've got character. It bubbles out all over."
The final score was 6-0, a fair reflection of the play. Nearly everyone remained in the stands for the awards ceremony. First Cloquet—not just its players but its fans and cheerleaders as well—received the sportsmanship award. Then Edina was presented the state championship trophy, which the captains took turns carrying around the perimeter of the rink, as they had seen Stanley Cup winners do. The ovation they received couldn't have been warmer if they had been beloved underdogs all week.
Later, the Edina players posed outside their locker room for the television cameras. "We like Ike! We like Ike!" chanted the team as I kola arrived. He was subdued, as most coaches are at such moments. During his interview he struck exactly the right chord by thanking, up front, Minnesota's youth hockey coaches. "The youth coaches give us the talent and we take it from there," he said.
Inside the locker room the players were slapping each other around, hollering in the showers, comparing their feelings with those of Stanley Cup and Super Bowl champions. The blackboard at the end of the room said: GIVE IT EVERYTHING YOU'VE GOT AND SOON YOU WILL HAVE EVERYTHING YOU WANT! Underneath that message was another: WHITE JERSEYS HERE. A pile of wet hockey sweaters lay below.
Outside the Mariner dressing room, several hundred parents, fans and cheerleaders were waiting. As the players came out one at a time, the people burst into applause. It stopped each player. I imagine it had been quite some time since those boys had lost 6-0. For a while, they probably wondered how they should act.
They'll remember that applause. They'll remember a lot of what happened to them that wild weekend in March.